Ireland’s Wars: The Rest Of The Mesopotamian Campaign

A short enough entry this week, more of a coda to an area we have covered already.

The fall of Kut was a terrible defeat for the Allies in Mesopotamia, made worse by the fact that it came so soon after the fall of the Gallipoli beachheads. But for the British along the Tigris and the Euphrates, the campaign in the region was far from over, and the Irish units with them would soon be thrown back into the fight. While there were plenty that questioned whether British and Imperial troops should be there at all, now that such a serious reverse had occurred they were bound to respond, to make up for the loss and to prevent any possible spread of unrest among Muslim populations in the rest of the Empire that could result from further success by the Ottomans.

In order to retrieve the situation, the problems of transport infrastructure had to be dealt with. That meant improving supply storage in Basra, and building railway lines out of that city to offset the use of the rivers as the primary means of moving troops. Ports and roads were improved, and more supply and water depots put in place on the routes to the north. All the while, what troops were in theatre underwent additional training and acclimatisation, so that when the time came they would be better suited to desert warfare.

For six months, there was little large-scale fighting in Mesopotamia, with British commanders ordered to restrain themselves from making any efforts on Kut, or the bigger prize of Baghdad. But in the last weeks of 1916, plans changed as the Russians began to make in-roads into the region, giving the British the impetus they needed to take control themselves. The Ottoman military in the area had also been reduced in the meantime, with soldiers diverted to the other fronts and the Germans less interested in assisting their ally in the region. The new British commander, General Frederick Maude, opened his offensive in December 1916, marching up either bank of the Tigris. The 1st battalion of the Connaught Rangers was with him as he went.

Maude was patient and methodical in his approach, mindful of the transport problems and the environmental difficulties of fighting in a desert winter, where the biting cold of the night could cause frostbite while disease spread rapidly. Numerous strongpoints were tackled in turn, and the depleted Ottoman’s withdrew bit by bit. By February, Maude was within sight of Kut, and after defeating the Ottoman forces arraigned there, liberated the town. The Ottoman retreated in good order however, unlike their British counterparts the previous year.

The following month, Maude defeated the Ottomans yet again, and entered Baghdad on March 11th, a remarkable turnaround from the failures of 1916. The Ottomans, losing men and material at a rapid rate, fled northwards. Maude did not continue his advance, reckoning that he had gone as far as he could reasonably go without risking too much by continuing. His supply lines were stretched, and the heat was increasing with every day.

All the while, the 1st battalion of the Connaught Rangers was there. After their experiences in the trenches of the western front, settling in to the warfare of the desert must have been a disorientating change of pace, and this could only have gotten worse as they marched with Maude’s victorious army, a victory that soon altered the nature of the Mesopotamian campaign to one of counter-insurgency warfare. Most of the actual fighting was done by other units and regiments, with the Rangers primarily employed in supporting roles, guarding prisoners of war, cleaning up battlefields of debris and bodies, and unloading transports filled with needed supplies.

With the fall of Baghdad, much of the British Army became largely constabulary, fending off raids from the Ottomans and the local tribesmen, who were resolutely opposed to the British. Isolated patrols could be easy prey to such foes, and the Rangers, along with other units, lacked the training to properly fight such an asymmetrical conflict. In such circumstances, mistakes were inevitably made: after a Colonel of an Indian unit was killed in a raid, the Rangers took part in punitive village burning and pillaging of local homesteads. The British Army, it seemed, had retained precious little knowledge of the excruciating experience of the Boer War.

The remainder of the Connaught Rangers’ time in Mesopotamia mostly consisted of patrolling the area between Baghdad and Feluja (Fallujah), and building defences to prepare for what was seen as an inevitable Ottoman counter-attack. The enemy had withdrawn northwards without much of a fight; now waiting for them to come back would prove just as tedious for those units that didn’t get any part in the limited fighting that had occurred with the relief of Kut and the capture of Baghdad. The tour for units like the Connaught Rangers would have been hot, riddled with the perils of disease, and enlivened only by the occasional engagement from enemy forces that would have fired from distance and largely vanished before any proper counter-response could have been dealt.

Most of the fighting in Mesopotamia was done, with neither side was all that committed to the campaign. By 1918, the British position would be expanded gradually, but all while troops were being siphoned off for the fighting in Palestine. When the opposing sides did meet, the British proved victorious repeatedly, but never to great or decisive effect. In October 1918, after one last brief flurry of campaigning to get as favourable a position as possible, an armistice ended the fighting in Mesopotamia altogether. However, the aftermath, wherein the British attempted to colonise Mesopotamia and take advantage of its rich oil resources, rapidly became a messy affair, one that easily calls to mind more recent conflicts in the area. The British would be dealing with the consequences for some time to come.

The Connaught Rangers were out of the theatre by then though, having been withdrawn in April of 1918, for redeployment elsewhere. 285 of the 2’000 or so members of the regiment to serve along the Tigris and Euphrates had died there, with a significant proportion of those falling to cholera and dysentery rather than the bullets of the enemy. They were only a small portion of the incredible 256’000 British and Imperial casualties.

Mesopotamia is the forgotten campaign of the overall conflict, one fought as much for the upkeep of British prestige as it was for oil and the expediency of fighting the Ottoman military wherever they were. The Middle-Eastern war very quickly saw the fighting in or around the Holy Land supersede that taking place there. The Irish were in Palestine too, and it was to there that the Connaught Rangers had been sent.

To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.

This entry was posted in History, Ireland, Ireland's Wars, War and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Ireland’s Wars: The Rest Of The Mesopotamian Campaign

  1. Brian Phelan says:

    Good read

  2. Pingback: Ireland’s Wars: Action At Tell’Asur | Never Felt Better

  3. Pingback: Ireland’s Wars: The End In The Holy Land | Never Felt Better

  4. Pingback: Ireland’s Wars: Index | Never Felt Better

  5. Pingback: Ireland’s Wars: Some Last Words On The First World War | Never Felt Better

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